Friday, January 8, 2016

Envy Is The Beginning of All True Greatness (GoldenEye)

I have a fondness for opposite numbers, for that character, typically the main antagonist, who is the mirror image of the hero. I realize that this, as a plot and character device, has been by 2016 fairly completely played out on film, television, and in books. Fiction as funhouse mirror maze. You could blame this fascination with Evil Twins and Funhouse Mirrors on my growing up in America in the waning days of the Cold War. Even as late as the mid-80's, there was a sense that these empires would continue their grinding push against each other for the foreseeable future.

GoldenEye, Pierce Brosnan's first entry into the franchise, is haunted by the Cold War. Six years out from the fall of the Berlin Wall and four years past the collapse of the Soviet Union, it is preoccupied by the Second World, and, further, by the idea of James Bond's opposite number.

Bond has faced competing spies before. And he will again, even as early as the next film after this, be paired with Chinese agent Wai Lin, herself painted very much as his equal counterpart. Here, however, the connection is as deep and explicit as it's ever been. Rather than the agent of a competing power or even a friendly one, Bond goes up against another Double-0, and one with whom he has a personal connection. We've heard of other 00 agents in the past--009 is frequently invoked right before he is killed--but this is the first one who gets any lines, whose agency and motivation in the story is the equal of Bond's. The first we see him, indeed, he is on a teamup with Bond.

fig. 2: I don't know how many shadows this is. At least four.
In fact, in a clever bit of foreshadowing, the exact first moment we see Alec Trevelyan, 006, he's half in shadow, speaking Russian. Because the mission at the beginning of the film goes south, of course, and while the film makes at least a tacit effort to convince us the plot is all about Bond going after General Ourumov, the man who ran the chemical weapons factory where Alec was killed, anyone who saw a trailer for this film in 1995 knew different, and the film drops the pretense early going. The next time we see Alec Trevelyan, the erstwhile 006, he's in some ruined park full of Soviet memorabilia, like a backstage prop department for some grand Stalinist theater. (Which, notably, is the same imagery used in the film's opening song.)

fig. 3: Political Theater
These visual clues tie in to the eventual reveal of Trevelyan's convoluted origin story, involving his parents being Russian Nazi sympathizers, who were betrayed by the British when the British decided they didn't need to use them against Stalin, or something. Though his route is more circuitous, Trevelyan is, much like Bond, an orphan steered toward the service of his adopted country, and though it's never stated when exactly he decided to betray that adopted country, his story changes shape in that fateful mission to Kazakhstan, and when revealed again he is the image of what James Bond would be like if he went bad.

Why does this approach work, and why employ it here? The latter question is easier: GoldenEye is the first Bond film released since the Cold War. Licence to Kill, released in the summer of 1989, preceded the fall of the Berlin Wall by just a few months, and has utterly nothing to do with the Cold War at all. Now that that war is over, and James Bond, who emerged on cinema screens in the US a mere seven months after the Cuban Missile Crisis (in the UK he precedes the Crisis by eleven days), has to define himself in this new landscape. That ties back to the first question: why do these parallels work? Or, at least, why do they work for me?

Moriarty was probably the first. The foundation figure of opposite numbers. His name even doubles now as a synonym for "nemesis." Certainly Moriarty is the most successful. Tumbling over the falls with Holmes in what Doyle intended, at first, to be Sherlock's final adventure, Moriarty accomplishes what antagonists of long-running serial adventurers rarely hope to do: he gets one over on the hero. Guys like Sherlock Holmes, James Bond, or The Flash, however evenly matched they may seem to be by their adversaries, always come out on top. The same goes for Alec Trevelyan. What power he exerts on the narrative is as a representation of another path. After being presumed dead he goes on to front an illegal arms company. In order to smoke him out (not knowing, yet, that it's him) Bond visits another Russian arms dealer, one with whom he's had dealings in the past. It's not difficult to imagine Trevelyan having similar contacts. It's not difficult to imagine Bond, in a similar position, seeking out someone like Valentin Zhukovsky, and starting a little empire of his own.

There's an attraction to the bad guy version of the hero. He or she is loaded with the same signifiers, but none of the constraints. They don't have to be good. They don't have to obey the rules. That's true, though, of any bad guy, really, and certainly goes in to our current national obsession with the anti-hero. The Moriarty, though, represents a path not taken, a glass through which the hero is glimpsed darkly. In GoldenEye, absent the West's usual foil, the Bond films invent one out of the mythology of the series and the wreckage of the duel between empires that inspired it.

It's notable that this very same bag of tricks would be brought out for Skyfall, seventeen years later. Silva is very much in the Trevelyan mold, and both films wrestle with the question of James Bond's place in the world. Spectre, too, a film even more concerned with how Bond fits into the new world, reinvents the Blofeld character as stemming from the same roots as Bond, his shadowy double.

Two roads, the poet says, diverged. What if you could take them both? What if you could see that other path, complete with all its consequences, laid out and personified for you? The 1990's were an uncertain time, especially for James Bond. The West is, for a brief time, burdened with the unease of being the last man standing at the shootout. (Later on, we'll be burdened with a whole other type of unease.)

There's another facet of this obsession with duels and dualism: the fact that this is Pierce Brosnan's debut. Though he is the fifth actor to play the role on the big screen officially, Brosnan has haunted the Bond films since the early 1980's. He was introduced to the producers while visiting the set of Octopussy in 1983, and his high-profile near-miss at the franchise a few years later could not have escaped moviegoers' attentions when he strode out to that first teaser.

In a sense, every James Bond is in a duel with another opposite number: himself. His other incarnations, particularly the long shadows cast by Connery and Moore. GoldenEye leans in to this by placing him square against another Double-0, literalizing the conflict within the story. By the end, of course, Bond emerges triumphant. Though we're not sure which way the ship is going, the captain sounds awfully confident about the whole thing.

fig. 5: Not James Bond

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